Is the grass really greener on the other side?
[Photo courtesy of EBM Photography: thanks Emma!]
It sounds so exciting telling someone you are moving abroad. It still feels somewhat adventurous when I tell people back in the UK that I live in Germany. Of course, there are hundreds of Brits in Germany but from my neck of the woods, in my old circle of friends from school and uni, there are possibly only three of us here in good ole’ Deutschland. Maybe there is a sprinkling of other people in other countries as well but mostly, everyone I grew up with is still in the same town where I grew up. To me there’s something kind of impressive about moving abroad. It’s not for everyone though and many are quite happy and content where they are. My friend Emma says she couldn’t imagine anything worse so I guess it just comes down to personal tastes and ambitions and that’s OK.
Firstly, ask yourself why are you moving? For a partner? For a job? Because the political situation is better? Because you love the country? The lifestyle? All these are good reasons to move but you need to be sure it is the right thing for YOU or that YOU will be able to adapt and give it a go. Think about the reality of the situation first, think about how you are actually going to do it and come up with a detailed plan. Those who fail to plan, plan to fail. Visit the country and area, get insights into the job market and look at apartments to rent and cost of living etc. before you go. AND, save up more money than you think you will need because you’ll always need a bit more.
It takes a tough character to move to a foreign country and handle the challenges they’ll face. As much as it is exciting, an adventure and you should definitely do it if the opportunity arises because it will change you in so many wonderful ways, it is far from all the glamorized romanticised versions the movies portray and as I said above you should do your homework before you leave. Having moved back and forth twice from the UK to Germany and now I’ve been living in Germany again for the past 5 years, here are 10 things I think you should consider before moving abroad. Of course, I speak from my UK > Germany experience but I think these things will probably be useful whatever country you are thinking of moving to.
Be prepared for paperwork. A LOT of paperwork.
Whether you need visas or to unregister from your country, once you arrive you will usually need to register in your new country of residence. If you get a car you will have to register that. You’ll be spending a lot of time at the local public order office and battling and wading through red tape. You’ll need to take many documents to different officials and always have certain documents to hand. If you need a new passport while in your new country, it will cost you double and take longer AND you will have to go through embassies. You will have to notify banks back home in your country of birth, even student loans companies and inform people and such organizations of your new address aboard. You will have to apply for postal voting and renew this registration for postal voting annually. You will be filling in insurance forms and tenant agreements and sorting out tax rebates at the end of the financial year. You’ll be opening bank accounts and signing new phone contracts in your new country too. You will have to read and understand the rules, regulations and laws of your host country and know your rights in that country. And all this will be in the language of that country. And God forbid you should get married abroad, well I could write a whole post on the paperwork on that alone!
You’ll never quite fit in.
You can read the news, follow the politics and try to blend into society but you’ll never really be one of them even if you master the language. You can voice your opinions on things and have a debate but bottom line: don’t be arrogant—you’re still a guest in their country. You might be able to joke with some but others may take offence. And you’ve grown up with different attitudes, experiences and there are going to be culture clashes. Meanwhile back in your own country, you’ll get the cold treatment. You’re an expat. You left your people and your country and some will say you don’t know where your loyalties lie and maybe you shouldn’t be allowed to vote if you’re not even living in the country. You’ll lose touch with politics, news, music and what’s going on and you’ll be out of the loop. Trends pass you by. You’ll try to keep on top with the local news but at the same time dip into the news channels back home. You’ll always be playing catch up on both sides. From fashion to the way countries work, you’ll be moaning or preferring bits from both countries and comparing all the time (which sometimes makes your appear arrogant and a know-it-all) and you won’t know where you feel most at home.
Don’t expect to land a great job straight away or one you actually want.
Your career might be put on the back burner for a while. You might even change directions completely. Jobs and qualifications differ across countries. Different systems, different structures and different environments altogether. People say moving abroad can enhance your CV and is character building. It is true in part but it depends where you want to work. If you are working in an American or English company in that host country then sure, it sounds great. If you return to your home country then it definitely looks impressive later on. But if you’re looking to work in a local company in your host country then good luck! It’s pretty tough to crack into. Some qualifications are not recognised, most countries like to see a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, you may need work permits or sponsorships and CVs are written differently too. In Germany for instance, you include a photo, nationality, age, gender, marital status, how many kids you have, your parents’ occupations and even the dog’s name (OK, the last one might be a white lie 😉 ) and don’t forget to sign and date it to validate it! But basically they will see all that and still prefer to take a native over you. The German system in particular is rigid. There’s no training on the job. There’s no changing professions and trying something new. There’s no flexibility. If you haven’t studied the exact subject for that exact position and obtained work experience in exactly that field doing that exact job then you haven’t got a chance. Life experience, fast learner? Who cares? In Germany it’s all about ticking the boxes, having the perfect candidate on paper and putting a stamp (Stempel) on it. Countries are all different and just because you may speak their language it doesn’t mean you will land a job. Err hello?? Everyone in that country speaks that language so what other skills or qualifications do you have? In fact, picking up simple admin or clerical jobs you could so easily do back home will be challenging in your host country because you need perfect language skills and no employer wants to hire someone whose work may need to be constantly checked for errors. Often you’ll have to take part time or casual work to get by, you’ll be waiting tables and working badly paid jobs. People will tell you that you’re over qualified; others will tell you that you don’t have the right qualifications or experience and some will say that you just don’t fit the company profile. Meanwhile friends and family back home–their careers will be steaming ahead and their successes will just further highlight your struggles. Stay positive. Do what you can to get by and think long term where you want to work and what it is you want to do. Anything is possible but it’s a lot harder in a foreign country. You’re competing with experts, native experts who know the markets, know the job situation and structure, know the language, culture and have contacts and well, know more than you. You’ll need to prove you are better than them to be worth hiring. And yep, you’ll often find yourself working longer and harder to prove you deserve that job as a foreigner. If in doubt, go freelance, get in touch with a language school and just teach English for a while. It’s what all the expats end up doing at some point and is a good back up! If money isn’t a problem and your other half is working then get involved in voluntary work to get into the community, make friends and to save you from boredom!
Prepare for a hard slog.
People back home will say it’s like you’re on holiday and they’ll imagine you’re having a blast and life is good. Well no, you’re not on holiday. You’re not on a beach sipping cocktails. You’re not travelling to other countries. It’s not a quick getaway. You are not going to be exploring the whole country right away. You are not going to be foot loose and fancy free. It’s going to be bloody stressful. You are going to feel afraid. You’re going to be alone and worried. You are going to have to adjust, get to grips with the area and how things work and figure out how you’re going to pay for rent long term. You won’t have a load of money to blow. You will have to get insurance and you’ll have bills to pay. Just like back home, all the responsibilities are in your host country too. Unless you’re literally travelling and exploring the world on money you saved up, moving to and living in another country is completely different. Everything takes time, it is a slow process and some days you’ll only manage to get one thing crossed off your list. It’s still progress and success though. Just don’t give up! You will get there, it does get easier and you will be OK!
Relationships are going to be affected.
Whether you’ll be doing a long distance romance or leaving family behind, you are going to break hearts and devastate people. You are going to miss them. They will miss you. You are going to feel guilty.
All. The. Time.
You will miss birthdays, weddings and big events. You’ll miss Christmas and other holidays. A family member or pet might pass away and while you might be able to fly back for the funeral, you won’t have been able to say goodbye and you’ll feel guilty about not having spent more time with them. You won’t be able to rush to your friends or family with a huge tub of ice cream, chocolate and wine when they are having a bad day. You’ll always feel guilty, carry the guilt and always feel just a little bit shit when something happens and you weren’t there. Some family members might accuse you of abandoning your responsibilities and duties and being selfish. Don’t always expect a warm welcome home, getting picked up from the airport or home cooked food waiting for you when you visit. You might face negativity and possibly bitterness, resentment and jealousy. Some might be expecting and waiting for you to fail so they can tell you I told you so. They may try to hold you back and convince you you’re making a mistake because of issues they have with their own lives and how you leaving will affect them. They may be truly concerned for you and it’s their way of protecting you. You will have to constantly remind yourself why you are moving abroad and why this is the right decision for YOU. You might have to constantly justify your reasons to others as well. But on the upside, you’ll become tech savvy and a pro at e-relationships! Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, emails and SnapChat will become standard communication tools every day, all day. You’ll actually find it weird to see people without a screen in front of them! You might find true love abroad or you might be moving abroad to be with someone. You will quickly learn who your true friends are and you’ll realise you can count them on one hand. True friendships will blossom and become stronger despite the distance. Other friends will move on and get new friends to replace you –you’ll notice the time between emails, texts and Skype sessions gets longer and longer. You’ll meet new people though. You might not feel close to new local friends in your host country because of culture differences but you won’t feel close to people in your home country either. When you go home you’ll find you won’t have things in common anymore. You might think you’ve outgrown those friends or even have a completely different point of view. You’ll kind of feel like a lone wolf at times and maybe you won’t connect to people wholeheartedly because you’re not sure when you’ll be on the move again. Talking to strangers however, will become easier because you HAVE to go out and make friends otherwise you won’t survive. You’ll be more tolerant and open minded about cultures, you’ll learn to read body language quickly especially if you don’t speak that country’s language. You’ll usually end up finding other expats or foreigners to hang out with in your host country because you’ll have that in common. The relationship you have with yourself will grow and develop. You’ll be more confident and you’ll discover more about yourself. Parcels of little things from home will create homesickness and nostalgia but it will feel like a huge hug in a box at the same time! And you’ll really appreciate and love big hugs from family when back home and treasure memories of time spent together. Those moments will become even more special and memorable and help you through the tough times.
You’ll feel in limbo and like a tourist in your own country.
You’ll feel homesick when you’re abroad and miss family but when you’re back home you’ll feel wanderlust. Things in your host country will annoy the hell out of you and maybe you’ll hate it altogether, maybe the grass wasn’t greener. But then as you get used to the ways of your new country, things back home in your own country will annoy you. You’ll miss out on events, new stores opening, new buildings and estates being built etc. and generally won’t recognise places back home. You’ll be out of the loop on new slang and phrases. Things and people change. After the novelty and romantic idea of living abroad wears off you will realise that you still have the same problems people back home do like a blocked up loo or broken dishwasher, bills to pay and working long hours with not enough time or money to go on holiday etc. Flitting back and forth you’ll have two of everything. Two bank accounts, two sim cards, two addresses for postal correspondence, two groups of friends, two purses and two lots of currencies. Sometimes you’ll feel like two people with two personalities. In your home country you’ll jump back into feeling a native and take on board all the customs and traditions, culture and slip back into that mindset while in your host country you’ll wear the “foreigner” suit but try to blend in more with their culture, customs and traditions and tailor your personality a little to fit in. You’ll be observing more the mentality and body language of the people in the host country and trying to fathom how best to behave in certain situations. And you’ll feel lonely. Very lonely. You will miss your friends and family and you’ll make new friends but new friends aren’t the same. You’ll see your friends back home moving on without you. You won’t really feel here nor there. It will take a while to adjust and my advice is to say yes to every invite, get yourself out there, see things, experience things and make any friends to start with. Then once you feel more settled you can be choosy. After a while you’ll question the word ‘home’. People back home will say ‘home’ referring to the place you were born in but you’ll be living in another country so surely that is your home now? What does it mean? Where is home? Which home is ‘home’? The place you were born and raised or where you currently live? Is ‘home’ a place or person or is it inside you—that feeling of contentment perhaps?
You’ll never be fluent enough in both languages.
Whether you consider yourself fluent or not, unless you were born and raised in that country or raised bilingual, you are not going to be native speaker level. If you don’t speak any of the language of that host country it’s going to be tough! Crash course definitely recommended! There’s always going to be idioms and references to things you won’t understand based on history, social events and culture. You won’t ever be 100% sure of the grammar and spelling and you’ll struggle some days to make sense, especially when you’re tired. Just when you think you’ve reached fluent level a word will pop up and you’ll be reaching for the dictionary again. Damn it! Watching movies in the other language will be difficult and you’ll hate the dubbing. You might not understand the humour. Trying to explain to doctors or shop keepers etc. Something you need is going to be difficult and challenging when you don’t have sufficient language skills. Bridget Jones and the pregnancy test scene anyone? Using your hands and role playing, acting it out or making sound effects is going to be normal at first. Patience is going to be a monumental skill you need to learn and everything will take longer. From writing emails to answering the phone, reading a document or newspaper, talking to people, arguing with people and hunting around the corners of your brain for the right word, it’s going to take much much longer and you’ll be concentrating and re-reading things over and over checking you understood it correctly. Quick sarcastic come backs are not going to happen straight away and some might not even get your sarcasm. Sorry. Culture clashes and misunderstandings will happen, they are inevitable so don’t fret. Just know that you won’t always understand the joke, see eye to eye and sometimes certain mentalities just don’t sit right with you. But you will meet some great people that will help and encourage you and sometimes things you say will result in fits of laughter that you’ll remember for years to come.
“Nose carpet anyone?” (Husband tried to ask for a tissue)
And because you are spending more and more time in the other language, perfecting and practicing it whilst being exposed to it on many levels (hearing it, reading it, speaking it everywhere etc.) you are not going to be using your native language often and you will start to forget it. OK, maybe not forget it, but you won’t use certain words or phrases and when you try to jump back into speaking it, you will struggle, stutter and take longer to remember the idioms and words you need. You’ll understand, read and hear it OK but writing and speaking your native language after a long break will be tricky. Dictionaries and thesauruses will become your friends for life. You’ll find great words and phrases to express what you want to say in your second language but you can’t throw it into the native one because no one will understand you. You’ll end up creating this little mix of both languages. So whilst you try to get better in the newer language you’ll be getting worse in your native one. And that’s seriously frustrating and annoying! And if you’re like me, you’ll end up taking on lots of language snippets from everyone you’re friends with and you’ll be a totally random mix of British and American English, German, Ukrainian and Russian.
You’ll learn to declutter.
Out with the old, in with the new! You’ll learn to declutter not only physically but also mentally. You might try on minimalism and learn not to be so materialistic. You can’t schlepp everything around with you and shipping just costs the Earth! You’ll cull everything and take only the bare essentials learning to live more simply asking yourself do I really need that? What once were important sentimental possessions become just objects you’ll associate memories with. You’ll surround yourself more with memories and experiences rather than ‘stuff’ because you don’t have the storage space nor the money to keep lugging it around with you. You scan in everything from documents to old photos storing it electronically and forever on your trusty laptop. You get rid of books, buy a Kindle and store music on your laptop instead of carting around hundreds of CDs. In fact, your laptop isn’t just your computer; it will be your TV and DVD player, phone (Skype), library, filing cabinet and general entertainment hub. You can run your life from your laptop. Goodbyes get easier because you know it’s not the end and you’ll be back to visit friends and family. You’ll keep saying goodbye and hello and with time it won’t feel so painful. You will let go of things and people you once thought you couldn’t live without and your mindset will probably become more liberal as you adjust to new cultures and mentalities. You’ll be more positive and optimistic because things will test you and you’ll get through them on your own. You will see that life goes on with or without you in both countries. People move on. They get on with their lives. Time doesn’t stop moving because you are not there. Things are always going to happen, change and you won’t be around all the time but you’ll learn to accept that and feel just a little bit freer.
It changes you.
Prepare to learn, grow, develop and ultimately become a new person … once you’ve gotten lost a few times. I’m not saying it will completely change you but the longer you are in a foreign country the more you will start to adapt and take on that culture letting it influence you and your mindset. There’s a famous quote that goes something like this: “learning another language is like becoming another person.” (Haruki Murakami) It’s a gradual process that creeps up on you. You might only realise you’re changing when your cousin says, “wow you’re so rude and direct, you’ve become German!” You will go through a push-and-pull relationship with yourself at first. You’ll go through periods of trying to immerse yourself in the new country, their culture and mentality. You’ll adopt their behaviours and mannerisms to try to fit in and be accepted. You’ll try on different ‘outfits’. You’ll take on their culture and forget yours. But then you’ll go through periods where you hate your host country and you’ll rebel. You’re homesick. You will be über patriotic and make mean jokes highlighting differences in their country and yours. You’ll dress up in your flag and go all out on huge sports events to support your country even if you hate sports! You will refuse to watch anything but your home country’s news channels and only hang out with other expats from your home country. Then you’ll rebuke all that and cut yourself off from your home country because you’ll find it makes you angry, bitter, upset, depressed and really, really homesick. You won’t be able to focus and get on with life in your new country so you cut the ties. But you then lose track of news and everything people are talking about back home. You’ll go back and forth trying on different personalities and cultures until you find the balance and realise you’re YOU in a country. It doesn’t matter about the country or culture but it’s YOU that you have to live with. Wherever you go YOU are there and YOU are the constant in your life. Only YOU can make yourself happy and life is what YOU make of it. You will learn this and it will teach you a lot about who you are but only once you’ve felt lost, confused and lonely for a few months even years. Events, dramas, problems and situations will challenge you, challenge your values and beliefs and challenge everything you know. You will realise though how strong you are, how independent you are and your confidence will rocket. You will also be less afraid of trying things, more pragmatic and have more get up and go. You will learn to look at the other side of the coin, the other perspective. You’ll learn how to handle stress, complicated situations, you’ll be more patient, wiser, more informed and researched. You also won’t know what ‘normal’ is after a while. You’ll be used to two lots of everything, flying back and forth and two cultures. You’ll take on elements of both cultures and those will influence you and shape your personality. After a while you will learn how to move to another country and you might want to move again. Addicted to that adrenaline rush of moving and trying new things, pushing yourself again to the limits in another language or culture and living a nomadic lifestyle. You might however, just settle. But if you’re like me, you might be afraid to settle just yet. You might get bored easily and want the next adventure. You still might not know where ‘home’ is and you’re not quite ready to commit. But you’ll know all the tricks and things in store for you for the next time you move.
You’ll always be converting everything.
From recipes, currency and time zones to weight, height, distances, miles, lengths and temperatures, you’ll never be sure of anything and will have to constantly convert everything to get an idea of what people are talking about! With a group of fellow expats, other foreigners and the local natives in that country, you all learned different systems; imperial or metric and these differences will crop up in conversation time and time again! You thought you could leave Maths at school? Think again – you’ll be using Maths and converting things several times a day and in two languages!
Has anyone made a huge move to another country? Where did you move from/to? Was there a language barrier? How did you feel? Why did you move? I’d love to hear your experiences so get writing below!
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